Monthly Archives: February 2009

Twitter is drive-by shouting

So, I finally succumbed and created a Twitter account. Despite my initial impression of it being fucking retarded. But now, having begun to follow some people and reading their “tweets” (what an awful word), I’ve been able to see how it works.

Imagine a large group of rednecks, each of them cruising down a broad highway in their pickup trucks. They’re in constant flow, constantly on the move. All of the rednecks are shouting out the window as they go. Typically letting the world know what they’re doing, but often also pointing out things that they’re passing by. At times, two cars are side by side, and the rednecks can holler at each other as they drive by. Such shout-versations rarely lasts longer than a few exchanges.

Now, the really odd thing is that each pickup truck has a microphone installed. But it only records the exclamations of the driver inside the car, not what the other drivers are saying. That means that you find a driver whose yelling seems exceptionally poignant to you, you will still have a hard time figuring out exactly what they’re going on about when they’re shouting replies to others. Your best chance is to listen in on a lot of people to get both sides of the conversation.

Twitter is sort of the redneck version of weblogs. It’s drive-by shouting online. It’s short and fast and furious and fragmented and mostly incoherent. I don’t doubt that it works. It’s obviously quite an effective way to let people know what you think. But it’s still shouting.

Online Ethnography

There was an interesting attempt at a discussion on the Anthrodesign mailing list recently as to what online ethnography actually entails. But the discussion never really seemed to get off the ground, and effectively had died by the time I posted my comment. So I thought I put it up here with a few adjustments:

Online ethnography is a very interesting research practice. In part because you are completely dependent on what your informants are willing to show you. You can only learn as much as they put online, and you have no way verifying that what they say is true. As the classic saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”


When you’re initiate ethnographic reseach online, you are acutely aware of this fact. No physical context or cues makes it difficult to interpret the actions and motivations of people. The short film “The Parlor” gives a great impression of how these issues.

One ethnography that does well to explore these issues of representation and anonymity is Annette Markham’s “Life Online“. But Markham’s central point is that the net-savvy people that she interviews do not see the Internet as a separate place that they enter when they go online. Rather, “going online means turning on the computer, just as one would pick up the phone.”

Online and in-person are parts of the same domain of social experience. I find that a lot of talk about “virtual ethnography” misses this and instead attempt to explore Internet relationships and behaviour as if they are completely different and unrelated to their informants’ in-person lives.

What I found in my fieldwork is that doing online ethnography is little different from other flavours of ethnography in that you have to examine not just a single aspect of your informants’ lives in order to be able to appreciate their practices and motivations online. This is equally true of everybody else online: Social ties are immensely strengthened by in-person meetings. As Gabriella Coleman has argued, online sociality augments offline sociality, rather than the other way around. In a similar vein, Brigitte Jordan labels this mixing of physical and digital fieldwork “hybrid ethnography” and argues that “the blurring of boundaries and the fusion of the real and the virtual in hybrid settings may require rethinking conventional ethnographic methods in the future.”

I don’t know exactly how ethnographic methods may require rethinking, I can only point to a description of how I combined different research methods, online and in-person in my fieldwork. If you’re curious, you can read my reflections on being in a digital field and my experiences there in my field report [pdf], which I’ve just uploaded for the first time (shame on me for putting it off for so long).

Having said that, I don’t think that online ethnography on its own is without merit. There is plenty of potential to learn from people online from behind the computer screen. But there is one other central issue here: It is incredibly easy to just observe others and not participate online. They can’t see you so there’s no social awkwardness associated with lurking. Not only is it unethical to some extent (just because it’s public doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people be aware of your presence), but it is also a bad way to do research.

Actively sharing yourself, participating on equal terms is the cornerstone of participant observation, giving you the best possible opportunity to experience what your informants are experiencing. And it is the central way to build trust with people online. Actions do speak louder than words online. Much louder. And it is perfectly possible to do online participant observation. A great example of this is Michael Wesch‘s fascinating study of the Youtube community. Both Wesch and his students shared themselves through videos of their own in a way that garnered both respect and interest in their project. Video is a much more personal and credible way to interact than text online, and it is well worth the time to check out Wesch’s presentation of their study (available on Youtube, of course).

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences doing fieldwork online. So please do share.

Why Free Software is important

Mako Hill, one of the founding members of Ubuntu whom I interviewed as part of my thesis fieldwork, posted a brilliant explanation of the importance of free software:

Suppose I see a beautiful sunset and I want to describe it to a loved one on the other side of the world. Today’s communication technology makes this possible. In the process, however, the technology in question puts constraints on message communicated. For example, if I pick up my cellphone, my description of the sunset will be limited to words and sounds that can be transmitted by phone. If I happen to have a camera phone and the ability to send a picture message, I will be able to communicate a very different type of description. If I’m limited to 150 characters in an SMS message, my message will be constrained differently again.

The point of the example is this: the technology I use to communicate puts limits and constraints on my communication. Technology defines what I can say, how I can say it, when I can say it, and even who I can say it to.

This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the nature of technology. But it means that those who control our technology control us, to some degree. As information technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, the way we experience, understand, and act in the world is increasingly controlled by technology and, by extension, by those who control technology.

I believe that the single most important struggle for freedom in the twenty first century is over the question of who will set these terms. Who will control the technology that controls our lives?

Free software can be understood as an answer to this question: An answer in the form of an unambiguous statement that technology must be under the control of its users. When free software triumphs, we will live in a world where users control their technological destiny. We simply cannot afford to fail.

Far too many of us fail to acknowledge the importance of controlling the technology we use. We don’t realise how much we depend on these tools and services, and how many unconscious comprises we make everyday in using non-free software. Sure, you and I may not be able to appreciate the openness of free software that allows hackers to develop and extend the software according to their needs. But I would much rather depend on people who I know and trust rather than corporations whose leadership might change from one day to the next.

So to show my support of Free software, I’ve joined the Free Software Foundation. Richard Stallman may be an uncompromising zealot – but when it comes to keeping technology free, that’s actually kind of reassuring. 🙂

Design ethnography deliverables

We had a great meeting in the Danish Design Anthropology network this Thursday. We’re getting some good energy into the meetings, going beyond the usual epistemological insecurity inherent to our profession and actually getting down to discussing and reflecting on our practice, sharing experiences and war stories from the front lines of user involvement, strategic consulting, and interactions with other professions.

The format was fairly simple: A short presentation of a company and a specific case which all fed into a lively discussion of a particular theme. This meeting focused on the difficulties involved in convincing clients of the relevance of doing ethnographic user research in relation: How do you pitch ethnographic research in the best way possible to people who haven’t heard of it before?

One of the insights from the discussion was that it is central to be able to provide potential clients with case examples from your previous work, showing how the ethnographic research actually made a difference in relation to the design of the final product or service. This is both a matter of being able to show the concrete results – the deliverables – of the research as well as telling the story of how these insights went on to affect the organisation, service or product involved.

Regarding the deliverables, Peter Morville has compiled a great list of User Experience Deliverables with links to literature and methods on developing these. It’s a great place to look for inspiration on new ways to present your research.

As for showing the actual impact of your research, it is vital that your deliverables actually do help the client organisation handle their problems. Adaptive Path co-founder Peter Merholz addressed this issue well in a posting on the international Anthrodesign mailing list:

… a key reason research doesn’t get used inside organizations is that it is not presented in a way that the “customers” of the research know what to do with it. Researchers are typically comfortable writing reports with findings and recommendations. However, people don’t know how to act on reports. So while they nod their heads as you list the 5 key things you found, after the meeting is over they continue doing whatever it is they’ve been doing.

There are three primary ways we think about getting our research insights better embedded in organizations.

1. Have the “customers” of the research join you in the research. This is probably the most successful approach, in that once these people
are up close with their customers in this way, they tend to just “get it”. Empathy happens. The challenge, of course, is that these folks
often don’t have time for such things, which is why they’ve brought you in.

2. Well-crafted personas. I don’t want to get into a long discussion around personas here, but we’ve found that a well-crafted persona, one
that explicates behaviors, motivations, and allows the persona to speak in his/her voice, does perhaps the best job of building empathy
in an org of deliverable/artifact.

3. “Vision prototypes” or other design concepts based on research. Considering this is an “anthroDESIGN” group, you’d expect to see such
things more, but you don’t . We never ever ever just leave people with reports of findings. We always do some amount of concepting and
ideation inspired by the research to demonstrate how the insights from design could be made manifest in a product or service. This is a
crucial bridge towards product development. This might mean researchers need to be more comfortable with concepts and design, or,
more likely, designers need to be part of the research effort. We find that such vision prototypes provide enough momentum for clients that
the research does gets used in some fashion.

I don’t think that this is a definite list but it does underline the importance of considering your audience when you present your research. Something which I am still learning to do well.